New Research Eclipses Existing Theories on the Moon Formation

A study published in Icarus highlights new perspective on how the moon was formed

Oxford, August 29, 2012 - The Moon is believed to have formed from a collision, 4.5 billion years ago, between Earth and an impactor the size of Mars, known as "Theia." Over the past decades scientists have simulated this process and reproduced many of the properties of the Earth-Moon system; however, these simulations have also given rise to a problem known as the Lunar Paradox: the Moon appears to be made up of material that would not be expected if the current collision theory is correct. A recent study published in Icarus proposes a new perspective on the theory in answer to the paradox. 

If current theories are to be believed, analyses of the various simulations of the Earth-Theia collision predict that the Moon is mostly made up of material from Theia. However, studying materials from both Earth and the Moon, shows remarkable similarities. In fact, elements found on the Moon show identical isotopic properties to those found on Earth.

Given it is very unlikely that both Theia and Earth had identical isotopic compositions (as all other known solar system bodies, except the Moon, appear to be different) this paradox casts doubt over the dominant theory for the Moon formation. Moreover, for some elements, like Silicon, the isotopic composition is the result of internal processes, related to the size of the parent body. Given Theia was smaller than Earth, its Silicon isotope composition should have definitely been different from that of Earth's mantle.

A group of researchers from the University of Bern, Switzerland, have now made a significant breakthrough in the story of the formation of the Moon, suggesting an answer to this Lunar Paradox. They explored a different geometry of collisions than previously simulated, also considering new impacts configurations such as the so-called, "hit-and-run collisions," where a significant amount of material is lost into space on orbits unbound to the Earth. 

"Our model considers new impact parameters, which were never tested before. Besides the implications for the Earth-Moon system itself, the considerably higher impact velocity opens up new possibilities for the origin of the impactor and therefore also for models of terrestrial planet formation," explains lead author of the study, Andreas Reufer. 

"While none of the simulations presented in their research provides a perfect match for the constraints from the actual Earth-Moon-system, several do come close," adds Alessandro Morbidelli, one of the Icarus’ Editors. "This work, therefore, suggeststhat a future exhaustive exploration of the vast collisional parameter space may finally lead to the long-searched solution of the lunar paradox."

The article "A hit-and-run Giant Impact scenario" by Andreas Reufer, Matthias M.M. Meier, Willy Benz, Rainer Wieler (doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2012.07), appears in Icarus, published by Elsevier. To view the article online, click here, or contact for the full text.

# # #

Notes for editors
To view the article online, click here, or contact; journalists wishing to interview the authors, please contact Clare Lehane at +44 1865 843466

About Icarus
Icarus is devoted to the publication of original contributions in the field of Solar System studies. Manuscripts reporting the results of new research - observational, experimental, or theoretical - concerning the astronomy, geology, meteorology, physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific aspects of our Solar System or extra solar systems are welcome. Icarus is the official publication of American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences and follows the APB publishing process.

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services. The company works in partnership with the global science and health communities to publish more than 2,000 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and close to 20,000 book titles, including major reference works from Mosby and Saunders. Elsevier’s online solutions include ScienceDirect, Scopus, Reaxys, ClinicalKey and Mosby’s Nursing Suite, which enhance the productivity of science and health professionals, and the SciVal suite and MEDai’s Pinpoint Review, which help research and health care institutions deliver better outcomes more cost-effectively.

A global business headquartered in Amsterdam, Elsevier employs 7,000 people worldwide. The company is part of Reed Elsevier Group PLC, a world-leading publisher and information provider, which is jointly owned by Reed Elsevier PLC and Reed Elsevier NV. The ticker symbols are REN (Euronext Amsterdam), REL (London Stock Exchange), RUK and ENL (New York Stock Exchange).

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics company that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support, and professional education; including ScienceDirect, Scopus, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, more than 35,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a world-leading provider of information and analytics to professionals and business customers, in a wide range of industries.

Media contact
Clare Lehane
+44 1865 843466